Patrick Kavanagh: Fifty Years On

Poetry Ireland Review Issue 122

Patrick Kavanagh died fifty years ago. His name has rarely been absent from comment and controversy since then. In his lifetime he could be scathing and colourful in speech: he wrote prose that pilloried the sacred cows of a city and an establishment, whoever or whatever they happened to be at that moment. As a defence his enemies portrayed him as oafish in manner and ungrateful by disposition.

I had the good fortune to meet Kavanagh when I was still a student. I sat across from him in a café at the bottom of Grafton Street, where they still turned and gritted the coffee beans in the window. Our conversation was brief but memorable, at least for me. And yet it would be years before I could unpick the legendary threads, the second-hand mythology of the poet. Once I did I could bring with me into later life not an image of sitting across from him, but the less easily realized shape of a writer of persistence and craft: an innovative and dissenting poet, neither afraid of the limits of his subject matter nor the reach of his own imagination.

Patrick Kavanagh was born in the border county of Monaghan, in the townland of Inniskeen, in 1904. He described his father as ‘a shoemaker, small farmer, hob doctor and ditto lawyer’. The farm was less than forty acres. But despite the hard-pressed times, the lack of money, the claustrophobia, Kavanagh kept a passionate attachment to his birthplace. ‘There are several fields I long to see again’, he wrote later. All his life, the best of his poetry and prose would evoke the ditches, crossroads, frosty vistas, and remembered visions of his birthplace.

Kavanagh was an unswerving critic of the Irish Revival. ‘It is usually taken for granted’, he wrote in an article, ‘that there was a great literary renaissance in Ireland within the last fifty years. How little of all that writing was of the slightest merit!’

He came to Dublin in 1939 and lived there from then on, despite being a reluctant city-dweller. He wrote and published poetry, much of it an implicit critique of the nationalism and idealism of the Revival. One of his most ambitious poems, ‘The Great Hunger’, was published in the British magazine Horizon in 1942, and brought out as a Cuala Press pamphlet by Frank O’Connor in the same year. It was a scalding anti-pastoral, a testament to a confined life and a wounded sexuality.

In some of his later comments, Kavanagh explained his resistance to the Revival. ‘When I came to Dublin’, he wrote, ‘the Irish Literary Affair was still booming. It was the notion that Dublin was a literary metropolis and Ireland, as invented and patented by Yeats, Lady Gregory and Synge, a spiritual entity. It was full of writers and poets and I am afraid I thought their work had the Irish quality.’

His comments, indeed his entire attitude, suggested a suspicion that he himself might be screen-tested by the Revival to become a laureate of tragic rusticity. ‘Had I stuck to the tragic thing in The Great Hunger’, he wrote, ‘I would have found many powerful friends.’ He moved on. Throughout the forties and fifties his poems grew shorter, more visionary, more dissident. The early social comment was burned away and what emerged were poems of deep private displacement.

Kavanagh has now entered the history of Irish literature in a more settled way. With retrospect, his questions seem more justified and his achievement more remarkable. He is also better served by critics now than he once was. There is a fine biography of him by Antoinette Quinn. But his true posthumous luck lies in his starring role in a beautiful, wrenching book. It is called Dead as Doornails. It was written by Anthony Cronin, and was first published in 1976.

Dead as Doornails is an account of post-war literary Dublin. The three writers observed are Brendan Behan, Flann O’Brien, and Patrick Kavanagh. Their daily existence, their deep frustrations with lack of money and opportunity, their impatience with convention – all are recorded. I have never read a better or more complex elegy for writers and the way they lived. I doubt there is one. Not that the book is sentimental. The writers who walk through the pages are unswervingly described. But they are never the villains. If there is a villain it is that period of Irish literary life – that time of shadows, shortages, and hardships. The actual writers, as described by Cronin, light up the pages. They speak, protest, and gesture in powerful and surprising prose. Anthony Cronin, as well as being a distinguished poet, was a superb man of letters. He not only records these lives. He mourns the circumstances that constrained gifted men and with a rare eloquence. Among those circumstances were the tabloid simplifications of their lives in their own moment. Cronin references this with regard to Kavanagh:

The town it is true buzzed with stories of his sayings and his behaviour, but they were stories designed to show him as a maladroit, mannerless oaf, and among the sort of people who retailed them, even the now very cursory acknowledgements of genius were left out. One heard such stories everywhere. They were part of Dublin’s social currency. If the person concerned was literary, he might just gravely incline his head and say, It was a pity Paddy hadn’t stayed down on the farm and stuck to the lyric thing, that he was making a fool out of himself in Dublin and it wasn’t doing him any good.

The cruelty and disrespect of such remarks are a common thread in Dead as Doornails. They remind us of a time when the acceptance of writers was more limited in Ireland than anyone now would believe. Which makes Cronin’s account even more valuable. When he finally meets Kavanagh in person, something different happens. It is one of the great strengths of Dead as Doornails that Cronin is able to offer a different impression to us and to all the futures in which Kavanagh will continue to exist:

It therefore came as something of a surprise to me, when I met him through Envoy, to find that Patrick Kavanagh was a deeply serious man with an intellect which was humorous and agile, as well as being
profound and apparently incorruptible. He was also, in that first relationship at least, apparently warm and generous. On someone who already
admired his work, his impact was extraordinary. More than any other man I have met, he fitted Dr Johnson’s description of Edmund Burke: ‘If you sheltered with him in a doorway from a drove of oxen for a minute, you would depart from him knowing you had been in the company of a man of genius.’

It is that ‘deeply serious man’ this half-century anniversary allows us to consider. It is that Kavanagh I want to remember here. He has seemed to me not only a signature writer of the Irish twentieth century, but something more as well: a figure creating a revelatory momentum within Irish poetry, and – wider than that – the history of poetry. But the context for all this requires a small detour ...

In 1977 the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe published an article in the Massachusetts Review. It was called ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” ’. It had previously been given as a lecture in Amherst in 1975, when Achebe was visiting there. The Black Atlantic writer Caryl Phillips described the lecture ‘as one of the most important and influential treatises in post-colonial literary discourse’. 

The argument of Achebe’s piece was a passionate and clarifying denunciation of the way Joseph Conrad represented African figures and African-ness itself in his novella. Conrad’s book tracks the journey of Marlow, a sailor, as he navigates the Congo river. But it is not the plot that disturbs Achebe. It is Conrad’s mindset. He holds him responsible for the misrepresentations of Africa he sees in the book, refusing to accept they belong – as some have argued – to his protagonist. ‘Conrad appears to go to considerable pains to set up layers of insulation between himself and the moral universe of his history’, Achebe states. Conrad therefore, in Achebe’s view is fully responsible and no arguments that this is fiction can exempt him from that responsibility.

The lecture makes it clear that to Achebe it is intolerable that the honours and titles of art should be granted to a text that he considers demeaning to his own countrymen. Defending his argument and anticipating criticism he writes: ‘There are two probable grounds on which what I have said so far may be contested. The first is that it is no concern of fiction to please people about whom it is written. I will go along with that. But I am not talking about pleasing people. I am talking about a book which parades ... prejudices and insults from which a section of mankind has suffered untold agonies.’

Chinua Achebe’s article opened decades of debate. Conrad’s defenders and Achebe’s supporters found little common ground. But one thing remained undeniable: whatever side of the argument was taken, Achebe’s luminous anger and ethical concerns were clearly of immense importance. His argument to this day remains deeply moving. But the reason I quote from it here is not because of Conrad or Heart of Darkness. It is because the meaning of Achebe’s argument goes beyond a single fiction. It raises a further question that he himself embodies: What happens when an individual or a people who have been simplified or demeaned – as Achebe sees it – will no longer hold still within the literature that does this to them? What happens when a person once objectified in that literature walks out of those tropes and becomes an author, able to shift and change what once held them in stasis? What, in summary, happens when the objects of a literature become the authors of it? What is the nature of that journey? And how can we track it? Those are the questions I want to apply to Kavanagh. Some of the answers – large as the questions are – may be partially suggested by this micro-focus:

In 1951 Kavanagh published a sonnet in The Bell Magazine. It was called ‘Epic’, and became a celebrated instance of his work. The poem appeared at the start of a new decade – the years indeed covered by Anthony Cronin in Dead as Doornails:


I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting ‘Damn your soul’
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
‘Here is the march along these iron stones.’
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.

The poise and satire here, the subversive juxtaposition of a private rural quarrel with a seismic historic event, show Kavanagh’s true grace of artistry. He was uniquely equipped with his clean, bold syntax, his sharp contrasting of talky lines with oracular ones, to create a rare vernacular space. But the poem shows something else as well. In many ways it was stranded in its moment. The ‘Munich bother’ referred to by the poem had happened years earlier. Now the war was over and 1951 was itself an odd year, full of maverick and disconnected events in Ireland: Ernest Walton won the Nobel Prize in Physics. The Abbey theatre burned to the ground. And Samuel Beckett published Molloy, but in French.

None of those events contextualize ‘Epic’. To get a real context for the poem we need to travel back almost thirteen years. The British scholar Jon Stallworthy tells us in an article in the Review of English Studies in 1966 that the first draft of one of Yeats’s final poems, ‘Under Ben Bulben’, was being made ready in August 1938 .It was completed over the next few months. On 26 January 1939, Yeats gave the poem to his wife with final corrections. He died at 2 p.m. two days later on 28 January 1939. Sometime between the August of 1938 and the January of 1939 he completed the final part of the poem with these well-known lines:

Irish poets, learn your trade,   
Sing whatever is well made,   
Scorn the sort now growing up   
All out of shape from toe to top, 
Their unremembering hearts and heads   
Base-born products of base beds.   
Sing the peasantry, and then   
Hard-riding country gentlemen,   
The holiness of monks, and after   
Porter-drinkers’ randy laughter;   
Sing the lords and ladies gay   
That were beaten into the clay   
Through seven heroic centuries;   
Cast your mind on other days   
That we in coming days may be   
Still the indomitable Irishry.

How are we to read the relation between these two poems – between Yeats’s legacy statement and Kavanagh’s Ars Poetica? I think we should see that relation as showing up a kind of artistic disruption, one which the Irish Revival for all its strengths simply never considered. That disruption happens when the objects of a literature become the authors of it. Nor is it only a matter of representation. The poem that objectifies a rural world – as Yeats does in ‘Under Ben Bulben’ – as well as those who live there not only runs the risk of simplifying those subjects, but also of silencing them. Therefore when those ghosts of silence begin to speak for themselves, an intense and proper disruption takes place.

And this is what is happening here. Looking at the end of ‘Under Ben Bulben’, it’s plain that Kavanagh’s name is not written there: that Yeats’s poem represents in Adrienne Rich’s phrase ‘A book of myths in which our names do not appear’. Instead of new names, what’s on offer is Yeats’s design for a stratified Ireland. In that sense, with its stage directions for future Irish poets – sing the peasantry – the lines don’t just simplify the subject, they erase it.

Yeats did many great things. This is not one of them. The journey from ‘Under Ben Bulben’ to ‘Epic’ therefore had to be undertaken as the arduous imaginative transit of a single poet, subverting everything from Irish history to the sonnet form with his own authorship. But that individual journey also encodes the journey of a society – of an Irish people who could no longer see themselves in the mirror of the hierarchy Yeats proposes. In undertaking that migration from object to author Kavanagh, who could not find his name uttered by his precursors, wrote a new name and a new poetry.

On this fiftieth anniversary of his death, there are many reasons to celebrate and remember Patrick Kavanagh. First and foremost, for his beautiful, plain-speaking poems with their powerful complications and formal sense of adventure – as in the Canal Bank sonnets. But for something else as well. In his journey into his own space, Kavanagh gave a radical and influential witness of the poet’s independence from tradition and objectification. Like his poems, that influence, that witness, remains – still making and remaking a future for Irish poetry.

Widely considered to be one of Ireland’s most important contemporary poets, Eavan Boland was Professor of Humanities and Director of the Creative Writing Programme at Stanford University, where she taught since 1996.  She was the editor of Poetry Ireland Review from 2017 to 2019 and was the recipient of the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2017 Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards. 

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